A CSJ Tribute To John Wooden

By Chad Bonham

In June of 2010, I was finishing up work on a special book project for Fellowship of Christians—a collection of inspirational musings about legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden. Each chapter featured a different prominent athlete, coach or cultural influencers sharing their thoughts on how Wooden impacted them and the world around them.

The plan was to release the book around Wooden’s 100th birthday in October and that Wooden himself would be able to enjoy the wonderful things that had been written about him. Sadly, he passed away and didn’t have that chance.

The release of “The Greatest Coach Ever” was moved up to July and went on to have great success thanks mostly to the star-studded cast that participated and the increased posthumous interest in Wooden’s life and teachings.

As part of my role as general editor, I was able to interview almost all of the 40 people involved. Here are some inspirational quotes from those conversations that might help shed light on why Wooden was and still remains one of the most beloved sports figures in American history:

Jane Albright (Head Women’s Basketball Coach, University of Nevada)

“The Bible commands us to ‘feed his sheep.’ Coach Wooden fed sheep. That’s really what he did his entire career. People knew he loved God and the Lord’s commandment is that the world will know us as Christians by the way we love each other. He’s the most like Jesus of any person I’ve ever met. I think it’s because of the love and the honor and the friendship that he gave to people like me who had nothing to give him.”

Bobby Bowden (Former Head Football Coach, Florida State University)

“He was a gentleman in everything he did. He lived like he taught. The thing that impressed me about his coaching philosophy was that he never said, ‘We’ve got to win.’ He talked about practicing hard, doing your best and preparing. But he never told his team they had to win. He didn’t talk about winning. He just did it.”

Tamika Catchings (Former WNBA player and four-time Olympic gold medalist)

“Yes, Coach Wooden had incredible success on the basketball court, but most people now talk about his character. He just had a power about him. It’s not a demanding presence, but you knew he was there. Even through just a smile, his spirit shone through.”

Sherri Coale (Head Women’s Basketball Coach, University of Oklahoma)

“I have a signed copy of the Pyramid of Success hanging in my son’s bedroom. It’s been there for years. What I think is interesting about the Pyramid of Success is that you can put it on the wall and if you don’t know anything about basketball, you’re just a person going through life, you could stop and read that Pyramid of Success and it could drive you towards excellence. It could be about relationships. It could be about a business career. It does not matter what you do. This is a recipe for being great as a human being.”

Jerry Colangelo (Former NBA Owner and Managing Director of USA Basketball)

“It’s easy to see from his life what his priorities were. It’s how he treated people. It’s what was important to him and what wasn’t important to him. He kept things in perspective at all times. A tell-tell about relationships between coaches and players is respect. Respect isn’t something you demand. It’s something you earn. The incredible respect that he’s always had from players, from peers, from anybody who’s been privileged to know him but for a little, says it all.”

Denny Crum (Former Head Basketball Coach, University of Louisville)

“He was a great competitor and a great teacher and just a super nice person. I love him like my own father or my own brother. You just feel so good about being around him and all the nice experiences you had together. You feel like you were so blessed to have had that opportunity to not only play for him but coach under him—to learn the game from both sides and learn a lot of life lessons too. That’s basically what he taught. He would never tell you he was a basketball coach. He would tell you he was a teacher.”

Kristy Curry (Head Women’s Basketball Coach, University of Alabama)

“There are many things that stand out from my time with Coach Wooden, but one thing I always remember was when he told us about how he wrote a letter to his wife every day and puts it under her pillow. Every single day he talked to her. You could just see how much love he had for his family. His kids, his grand kids and his great grand kids were so important to him. As crazy as this business can be, he always made his family a priority.”

Tony Dungy (NBC Analyst and Former NFL Head Coach)

“I’ve never met Coach Wooden in person. I’ve talked to him on the telephone. That was one of the biggest thrills for me. I had 15 minutes to talk to him about life and about his philosophy. One of his principles that impacted me most was preparation. He always talked about preparing his team to do what they did. That’s something I took to my players and my teams. That was my mantra when I was in Indianapolis: ‘Do what we do.’ It came from Coach Wooden. He didn’t put a lot of stock into scouting reports. He didn’t want his team to know what the other team did. His philosophy was that his team needed to perfect what they did and make the other team adapt to them. Then, it doesn’t matter who you play, what court you play on or where the game is.”

Joe Girardi (Former MLB Manager)

“He was such a humble man. When he talked, you were attracted to him and you wanted to know more about him. You could sit with him for one minute and you know there’s something different about him. Besides the championships, there was something different about him. That makes you want to read about him. He was an amazing man.”

Kyle Korver (NBA player, Utah Jazz)

“I was born in LA, so growing up I watched UCLA quite a bit. UCLA was so tied to Coach Wooden. There was always such a reverence and respect whenever his name was brought up. He always seemed like such a humble and mellow and quiet older man. Sometimes you’re caught off guard by his demeanor. It’s hard to imagine that he was such a great coach. Aren’t coaches supposed to be the fiery types that yell and scream? But you looked at him and he was a model of consistency. Whenever anyone talks about him, it’s the highest praise possible. Growing up, it was hard not to respect him even though you’d never met him.”

John Maxwell (Best Selling Author)

“John Wooden was bigger on the inside than he was on the outside. He was better on the inside than he was on the outside. When I say he was bigger on the inside than the outside, I’m talking about his spirit. I’m talking about his attitude. He was a big-spirited person. He had a real heart. When I say he was better on the inside than the outside, I’m talking about his character, his integrity. He walked the walk. No question about it.”

Anthony Munoz (NFL Hall of Famer)

“The greatest of all gifts is love and Coach Wooden had a great love for his Lord and secondly for people and for the game of basketball. When I met him, I could see that look in his eye. He had tremendous love for everyone around him. If you didn’t know he was a man of great faith, you’d say, ‘There’s something different about this guy.’ His eyes just reflected love.

Tom Osborne (Former Nebraska football coach)

“(Coach Wooden) was a person who was largely motivated and influence by spiritual principles that I thought were sound. He was not shy or timid about his spiritual life.”

Dave Pasch (Sports Broadcaster, ESPN)

“Paul said ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’ and Coach Wooden was someone whose life almost screamed the same thing: ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ.’”

David Robinson (NBA Hall of Famer)

“The first time I met him was the most impactful. That’s when I received the John Wooden Award and sat with him for a while. I noticed his humility and his kindness. Knowing all the people he worked with and all the things he had accomplished, it just left a great impression on me. His humility is one of the things that drew me to him. And at that point, I wasn’t even a Christian. But you still noticed humility and you still noticed greatness when you saw it.”

Lorenzo Romar (Assistant men’s basketball coach, University of Arizona)

“When I became a head coach, I brought my staff with me to go meet Coach Wooden at his place. Something interesting happened. The meeting was over and I went back home and I got a call from him. He said, ‘One of your assistants left some change that he dropped down into the couch. I want to get that back to him.’ So I said, ‘Oh Coach, don’t worry about it.’ He said, ‘No, I want to make sure he gets it.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t worry about it.’ It was like 75 cents. He agreed to speak at my basketball camp at Pepperdine about two months later. I picked him up from his condo to bring him to camp. When he got in the car, the first thing he handed me was the 75 cents. He was just so detailed that way in doing things right.”

Mike Singletary (NFL Hall of Famer)

“When I think of Coach Wooden, he was the ultimate perfectionist. He was a guy that was kind of like an investment. He was a turnkey figure. From start to finish, he looked at every detail. He addressed everyone on the team. Somehow, someway, he was going to touch a life.”

Pat Williams (Executive Vice President, Orlando Magic)

“He’s one of the very few people that I’ve come across in life that after a session or a meal or time with him in condo, when you leave his presence you feel that you have been scrubbed up and cleaned up with a cleansing detergent. You literally feel close to being purified after your time with him. I found it took the better part of four or five days just to get my equilibrium back. That was an overwhelming experience. It took four or five days just to get re-centered again. That happens rarely in life, that you know you have been in presence of greatness; not just accomplishment, but a great person.”

Author: CSJ Admin

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